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Rockets starting center job no clearer after Sunday’s game

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

One of the hottest topics recently around the Rockets, outside of James Harden point guard talk, is who will be starting at center come opening night in L.A. on Oct. 26.

Oddly enough, the center job wasn't even something people thought about, everyone pegged Clint Capela as the de facto starter. But head coach Mike D'Antoni said "not so fast, my friend" and ended up making this a topic worth thinking about.

D'Antoni's right, too: being able to ride in the front seat of the car with James Harden isn't something he is just going to hand to Capela, it's something that has to be earned.

Now, after the team's first preseason game with the Shanghai Sharks, we have more questions than answers about who is going to be in that starting big man.

Sunday, Capela drew the "start" against the Sharks, but when Nene came in off the bench, that's when the team really started to hit their stride.

In 13 minutes of action, Nene had 12 points on 4-5 shooting, picking up four rebounds to go with two assists.

Capela played 20 minutes and had a double-double with 10 points on 5-8 shooting to go with 11 rebounds.

While the numbers say Capela had a big night, it really wasn't so. Outside of Harden's 16 points and 10 assists, Nene stole the show.

And in this battle, being able to play with Harden is the only factor that matters. Both bigs had a chance to play with the starting five of Patrick Beverley, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Harden.

"Both are really smart," James Harden said when asked about comparing the two centers. "Nene is an extremely really good passer, he's a vet, he knows. Clint has to continue to learn and continue to get better. He listens, so that's the first step, guys are bonding and we're in a good direction right now."

The two have a lot of pluses individually, but on Sunday only one guy had it every minute he played and the other didn't. At the start of the night, the Rockets had a hard time scoring and stopping the Sharks from getting into the paint, but all that changed when D'Antoni made one substitution, subbing Nene for Capela.

"I just think Clint again has to get used to playing," D'Antoni said of the young center's night, "he was running in mud a little bit after a couple of minutes, he loses his energy a little bit too quick and he's got to build that up."

That could be an explanation for why Capela seemed ineffective early. He ended up playing better later when getting subbed back into the game. He and Harden even hooked up a few times for their patented alley-oops.

"[Capela] has to fight through having a small tank," D'Antoni said. “He's got to build that up, now that's his next step. Everything else he does OK, he gets in trouble when he's tired and he slows down.”

Dunks and defense are what Capela needs to hang his hat on this season, but again, early Sunday, that was not the case. Nene came in and everything changed; the ball started going into the hoop and drives into the paint stopped becoming so easy for the Sharks.

"He's very physical, but the way he talks to on the court helps so much, having a verbal guy like him, you know he's behind you know he's clogging up the paint," Ryan Anderson said of Nene. "He does such a good job, he's very smart, he has those vet-savvy moves where you can get a steal, make a good play, cut off the baseline, you can tell he's a veteran the way he plays defense and how vocal he is."

Capela has potential for days. Right now, the stamina doesn't seem to be where D'Antoni would like it. On top of that, Capela had a rough night at the free-throw line, missing all six of his tries.

Nene is a veteran and he get's high praise for his ball movement and the way he can pass from the post.

Sunday night Capela may have gotten the start, but it ended up just adding more fuel to the "who's gonna start" fire.